I’ve had it. I see ow.ly links all over Twitter and I’m not going to take it anymore.
What’s the issue? Framing and search engine optimization (SEO).
I just read through a comment thread on “The Day I Decided to be Evil [URL Shorteners]” at SiliconAngle.com on whether we should use URL shorteners at all.
I’m on the “yes” side of this argument, both because I would be horrifically hypocritical (I’ve shared thousands of shortened links on Twitter) and because microblogging virtually requires the use of shorteners to work as a means to share and spread data, links, pictures and other forms of media.
So there’s that, in the interests of disclosure.
My post comes late to the SEO debate and, to be frank, there are others who are much better equipped to argue the point. Fortunately, since this is the Web, I can point you in the right direction:
The authority on the subject is absolutely Danny Sullivan, who posted Which URL shortening service should you use? last month. What’s the nut of the SEO issue? The kind of redirect used. As Sullivan writes:
”A top issue to me, and many others, is that a URL shortening service does a “301 redirect” to the full URL. That number stands for the code a web server issues to a browser (or search engine) when a URL is requested.
A 301 redirect says that the URL requested (the short URL) has “permanently” moved to the long address. Since it’s a permanent redirect, search engines finding links to the short URLs will credit all those links to the long URL (see the SEO: Redirects & Moving Sites section of the Search Engine Land members library for more about redirection).
In contrast, a 302 redirect is a “temporary” one. If that’s issued, search engines assume that the short URL is the “real” URL and just temporarily being pointed elsewhere. That means link credit does not get passed on to the long URL.
In short, if you’re hoping that links you tweet will generate link credit for your web site, you want a service that issues a 301 redirect. Also keep in mind that while 301s might be issued today, a shortening service could shift to 302 directs at any time (and if they do, I hope scorn gets poured upon them).
Ok, so there’s the SEO background and issues at hand. So which does ow.ly use? I tried Rex Swain’s “Rex Swain’s HTTP Viewer” tool, linked to from Danny’s post, on the following link: http://ow.ly/cB3E
Here’s what I received:
Sure looks like a 200, not a 301 redirect, right? That would imply that A.J. Ghergich of AuthorityDomains was wrong when he wrote that ow.ly uses 301 redirects. When I tried the HTTP Status Codes Checker tool provided by SEOConsultants.com, however, I received two different server responses:
#1 Server Response: http://ow.ly/cB3E
HTTP Status Code: HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
#2 Server Response: http://www.engadget.com/2009/06/06/40-second-toothbrush-complicates-horrifies/
HTTP Status Code: HTTP/1.1 200 OK
So that looks like both! Ah, confusion. Hootsuite certainly thinks that it’s doing it right, as evidenced by the following statement on their blog:
”Ow.ly links won’t harm SEO because they’re designed to allow Google and other search engine spiders access to the content without stealing any Google juice.”
Color me unconvinced. I think I’ll stick with bit.ly, which I know uses the correct redirect every time.
I asked Danny Sullivan
in October (on Twitter, no less) what he thought of ow.ly. Sullivan tweeted
that “any shortener that frames is bad for SEO as you don’t get credit [link to his URL shortener
post] standalones doing this feel more evil to me.” Further, he replied
“su.pr, diggbar & facebook all frame. not so bad as designed to do from within their systems. not that i like it much still.”
As Jennifer Van Grove (@jbruin) points out on Mashable in “HootSuite 2.0: Get More Twitter Tabs, Columns and Stats,” the HootSuite platform itself has continued to improve and offer easier management of everything from “profile feed options (like mentions, DMs, pending tweets), multiple keyword tracking (up to 3 keywords per column), search terms, and groups.” That’s a compelling offering. As she writes, “ow.ly links via HootSuite to track click-throughs will also love that stats are more detailed. So, summary stats on links are supplemented with individual tweet statistics showing total clicks and user rating.”
That’s long been one of the more attractive features of ow.ly for publishers, given the need for them to prove ROI, measure audience feedback and test different compositions of microcontent. That said, bit.ly offers similar features without the burden of that bar.
In other words, I think Web publishers who use Hootsuite are getting good value, especially considering that the cost is precisely zero.
I do, however, think they risk damaging their brand equity and irking users with the social bar – and that there’s a larger ethical issue around the framing that the ow.ly bar creates, including potential violations to terms of service and copyright. If you read Malcolm Coles, “Ow.ly and Hootsuite are in widespread breach of newspaper and other sites’ TOCs,” you’ll gather that he does as well.
Hootsuite itself writes the following:
“Generate money from your tweets! Add your Google Adsense code to enable ads on your ow.ly links. We’ll show your ads half the time, and our ads half the time.”
Also of note: when I clicked the “Learn more” link below the Adsense copy, I ended up at a 404 page with the following URL: http://blog.hootsuite.com/monetized-twitter-yes-we-did
Of course, thanks to Google, you can still view the page in cache:
Following is a quote from the post, entitled in a decidedly Yoda-esque fashion: “Monetized Twitter: Yes We Did.”
“Got a link that prompts a re-tweet? As your ow.ly link gets passed from person to person, so does the featured ad! If your link is retweeted by enough people, it can continue to make you money.
Ever wonder how Twitter’s getting monetized? We’ve just shown you. It’s easy to configure, it’s easy to share, and it easily integrates with Twitter.
Note: So that we can keep HootSuite as a free service for our users, there is a 50% chance that your ad will appear in a link, and a 50% chance that one of our ads will appear.”
Got that? As the link to the third party’s content is passed along – content that the user (who shortened it) and Hootsuite (the shortener) did not create – both of those parties will earn money by framing it with ads.
It’s worth observing that Hootsuite does provides an option NOT to include Adsense in Settings, simply by leaving the field unoccupied: “(leave empty to disable AdSense)”
Also crucial to note is that the updated, slimmer version of Hootsuite’s social bar does not appear to play well with Google Adsense, though the precise reason for the issue isn’t clear.
According to Hootsuite, “We are currently experiencing issues with AdSense integration. Your ads may not be displayed. We are in communication with Google about this issue, and we will keep our users updated.”
I should note that I’m not a lawyer, but a quick read of Google’s Adsense policies would seem to put ow.ly in violation:
“Copyrighted Material: AdSense publishers may not display Google ads on webpages with content protected by copyright law unless they have the necessary legal rights to display that content. Please see our DMCA policy for more information.”
Framing another site’s content with a bar that contains advertising to other parties would appear to do precisely that.
It could be a formatting issue, it could be something else entirely – I wonder whether Google’s notoriously savvy legal team has seen this issue.
If any publishers do decide to use ow.ly, I believe they would be well-advised to do so.
At least one lawyer shares that view. In the comments section of Greg Lambert’s post on GeekLawBlog, Product Review: HootSuite & OW.LY – Do The Benefits Outweigh The Problems?, Doug Cornelius posted a strong opinion, albeit one filtered by his standard lawyerly disclaimer:
Incarnation of Satan may be a bit much, but definitely a spawn of Satan.
I am not a copyright expert, but it seems to me that framing is a copyright violation. (There was the TotalNews case, but it was settled before we could could get some law on this. Infer what you want from TotalNew stopping the framing as part of the undisclosed settlement.) I expect that this feature of Ow.ly won’t last long, once the lawyers start sniffing around.
Even if it is not illegal, it robs websites of traffic. You, like me, put up blog posts because we feel like saying something. We don’t sell ads, we don’t have sponsors and nobody pays us to write. All I (and I assume you) want in return is some page hits and the occasional comment. We want to know that someone is listening and that we are not just talking to ourselves.
Ow.ly seems to rob us the page hits so I would not know that you viewed my page or where you came from. I don’t ask for much, but it is nice to know that you stopped by and who sent you. Ow.ly takes that away.
Don’t get me started on the adsense feature of ow.ly. If I wanted ads associated with my site, I would put them there. I don’t want someone framing my content with a Viagra ad.
Lambert himself expresses considerable reservation:
The Whole “OW.LY” Thing….
Alright, this is the big one. I barely got my first test Tweet out on HootSuite when someone called me out for “annoying” if not “illegal” framing of web content. Now, I confess that I didn’t realize what OW.LY was doing until after I had sent out the Tweet, so I was pretty ignorant of the drawbacks of using OW.LY as my URL shrinker. At first glance, the frame is a little annoying, but also a little useful. So, I had a nice little discussion with Doug Cornelius about the benefits. Whereas I thought HootSuite’s ability to gather statistics and feedback could be a benefit to the person Tweeting the link — Doug thought it was something close to the incarnation of Satan himself (okay, I’m being a little over dramatic on Doug’s response… but, not that far off!)
After looking at the positives and the negatives, I decided that framing of other people’s content really isn’t a great idea. It is annoying for one, and it borders on the unethical for another. I would ask the folks at HootSuite to give the users of their product an option to use a non-framing version of OW.LY that would still gather the metrics of who did the click-thru, without annoying the hell out of them!!
As for the putting Google Adsense code on OW.LY to generate revenue from your Tweets, I’d have to say that would not be something that I would do, or recommend. Some may argue that people would not have gone to these websites if it were not for your Tweets, but I’d have to say that there seems to be a certain sliminess about that type of revenue generating that I do not like.
There are other reasons to be concerned, as content publisher. As Espen Antonsen writes on cloudave.com in “The Problem with URL Shorteners: Ow.ly server errors,” your audience may be confronted with a server error by the shortener, even if the end resource is live. I should note that has nothing to do with SEO or framing issues, but it’s worth considering:
“If you currently click on a ow.ly shortened URL you will be shown a server error page at ow.ly – not the URL you or the publisher intended you to see. Proponents of these services have so far ignored the main problem; trusting a third party. I guess they see the problem now when potential visitors to their site are stopped by a server error on someone else’s site.
The question of trust in this regard is especially important because these services has no working business model. Also any developer can create such a service in less than an hour making the barriers of entry for this service extremely low. Expect to see URL shortener services changing their tactics: Digg launched their already much hated DiggBar last week. This service unlike most other url shortener services wraps the actual landing page in a frame and adds a top-frame bar with Digg information. Ow.ly is also now doing this (unsure if this feature is new to this service). The problem for site owners is that they have no control over how these services will change. DiggBar is already “stealing” link-juice by having a digg-shortened link on Delicious instead of the original url. Also DiggBar and Ow.ly responds with a frameset (200 http status code) instead of a redirect (301 http status code). This can result in a lower pagerank as Google will not see the link from “Site X” to “Site Y” but instead from Digg.com to “Site Y”. In my view URL shorteners are just plain evil. They add an extra unnecessary layer on the web.”
Angie Haggstrom, of ProfessionalWebContent.com, expressed similar reservations to Cornelius in the comments of that post:
“After one of my readers complained about me using HootSuite’s ow.ly links (he thought the framing raised some copyright issues), I asked HootSuite about giving me the option to remove it.
They responded that the ability to move the frame will be an option in their “premium” account, meaning that you will have to pay for it.
By the way, the HootSuite tool bar has been in place as long as I have been using it, which is for 3 months.”
“The other beef with services such as Ow.ly that many haven’t mentioned is the fact that they are making money off content that doesn’t belong to them. Google Adsense for example. Shouldn’t web owners get a cut? At least those who do not want to share their content?”
So where does this leave me?
The Hootsuite blog states that it offers an opt-out, that doesn’t fix the ad framing issue:
“One click opt-out. We recognize everyone is different. So, if you or your users happen not to like it? Not a problem. One click and anyone can opt-out of ever seeing an Ow.ly social bar again.”
That doesn’t do it for me: I won’t be using ow.ly.
As I’ve previously stated, I will not share or retweet ow.ly links.
I’ll look for another provider that is sharing the same news.
If it’s original content from that publisher, I’ll navigate to the source and re-shorten the link, if the story is compelling enough to do so.
Thankfully, I can shorten URLs using http://bit.ly and Twittelator Pro, simply replacing “http” with “twit” in mobile Safari on my iPhone, though it’s obviously onerous to do so.
I hope that Hootsuite will simply permanently remove the Adsense feature. After all, it’s not working now.
And I hope that I’m wrong about the SEO issue – though as I wrote, it appears ow.ly has a 200, not a 301 redirect. That’s something Hootsuite can and should fix soon.
The social bar isn’t likely to go away, just like the social bars from LinkedIn, Facebook and Digg. It’s not hard to anticipate scenarios where content publishers raise copyright concerns should third-party advertising end up in those bars as well, a future that may well be coming given the considerable pressures to monetize these platforms and social networks.
In the meantime, we as users and publishers can choose not to use them and encourage reforms in their technical underpinnings.